‘Simple majority’ should be enough for a united Ireland, Varadkar says

Tánaiste says North’s minority unionist community could not be ‘vetoing’ popular support for change

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said a “simple majority” in favour of a united Ireland should allow for the reunification of the island. However, he said a Border poll at this stage would be divisive and defeated.

In remarks clarifying what the Fine Gael leader said several years ago, Mr Varadkar said a minority unionist community in the North could not be “vetoing” popular support for constitutional change.

“My view is that if there is a simple majority for unification that should happen,” he said.

“I don’t think you could have a minority vetoing that forever, if [unification] were the desire of the people in Northern Ireland and, indeed, people in the Republic as well.”

However, he warned a “50 per cent plus one” majority for reunification in a Border poll would not be “desirable”.

“What you would end up with then is having a very large minority of people being brought into a united Ireland that they don’t want to be part of,” he told BBC’s Sunday Politics.

“What I would like to try and achieve is as big a majority as possible.”

The 50 per cent plus one majority is the required figure contained in the Belfast Agreement, which says the vote must be “freely and concurrently given” in both Northern Ireland the Republic, implying parallel polls.

When taoiseach in 2017, Mr Varadkar suggested there needed to be a bigger majority than 50 per cent plus one to carry a referendum for reunification.

“I wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50 per cent plus one basis,” he said at the time.

‘Tests clarification’

Speaking on Sunday, Mr Varadkar also called for clarification from the UK government about what “tests” must be met for the calling of a border poll.

Under the Belfast Agreement, Britain’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the power to call a referendum if they believe there is enough support for change.

“I doubt any secretary of state would make that decision without consulting the [British] prime minister and the cabinet and it doesn’t really say clearly how that test is applied, as to whether there is consistent public support for it,” Mr Varadkar said.

“Is the secretary of state supposed to look at Assembly election results, is it opinion polls, what is it? I think that is something that ought to be clarified and could be clarified.”

Mr Varadkar said he believed the aspiration to a united Ireland “is a legitimate one” shared by himself, his party and the Irish Constitution.

“But I don’t think it is appropriate or right at this time,” he added.

“Fundamentally because I think we need to get the Assembly and Executive up and running. We need to resolve issues around the [Northern Ireland] protocol and I think that can be done. But also because I think the tests [for a Border poll] in the Good Friday Agreement have not been met.”

Mr Varadkar said there has been no consistent poll for unification to date.

“If we look at the Assembly election [in May], the number of MLAs in this election who want a united Ireland is actually lower than it was in the last election,” he added.

“To my mind a Border poll at this stage would be divisive and defeated. That wouldn’t be a good outcome for anyone.”

On the continued rise of Sinn Féin in the opinion polls in the Republic, Mr Varadkar said he did not believe the party’s performance would translate into a majority government.

Whatever government is formed after the next general election would be a coalition, he predicted, adding that the combined support of current government parties suggested it could be re-elected.

On souring relations between London and Dublin, Mr Varadkar said it was “hard not to say otherwise” when British ministers make remarks “simply at variance with the facts” over backing for its legislation to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol.

“When I hear [Secretary of State for Northern Ireland] Brandon Lewis saying there is broad support for what the British government was attempting to do in the new legislation... there isn’t broad support for it,” he said.

“I just find it difficult to understand how easy it is to say something so provably the opposite to the truth.”